Legal eagles going to war over East Hampton Airport

KYRIL BROMLEY, THE EAST HAMPTON PRESS  PHOTO | Aircraft at the East Hampton Airport.
Aircraft at the East Hampton Airport. (Credit: Kyril Bromley/East Hampton Press)

In the quiet of winter, big legal guns have opened fire, joining the controversy over excessive helicopter traffic and noise over the the North and South forks.

In a statement released today, the Friends of East Hampton Airport Coalition filed legal action asking a federal judge to weigh in on the issue.

The FEHAC includes the Eastern Region Helicopter Council — a pilot’s organization — along with aviation companies. In its release today, Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesman for the group, said the coalition also included  “a group of business leaders.”

When asked for a list of names, Mr. Riegelhaupt declined, saying that at the businesses request they didn’t wish to be named.

Specifically, the FEHAC legal action maintains that the Federal Aviation Administration “did not have the authority to waive congressionally mandated grant assurances prior to the termination of their original 20-year commitment. Second, the coalition filed a complaint with the FAA alleging that the Town of East Hampton has failed to close critical safety and security holes at the airport.”

FAA grants, accepted by East Hampton in 2001 for infrastructure and other expenses at its airport, came with quid pro quos in the form of “grant assurances.” This meant the airport could be open to aircraft traffic around the clock throughout the year, and the town could not discriminate against types of planes or helicopters using the facility. But federal control ended on December 31.

The legal action is contesting that termination.

Since last autumn, the East Hampton Town Board has done noise analysis and financial studies, maintaining that the noise is excessive and the town can operate its airport without federal money.

“Our coalition is eager to work with the town, the FAA and our fellow residents to help resolve complaints related to noise, but we won’t do it in a way that compromises safety or violates federal law,” Mr. Rieglhaupt said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the town has refused to change course and we are forced to take these and future actions to ensure that the airport remains safe, secure, and operational.”

On the other side, two East Hampton residents, Peter Wolf, an author and expert on land uses, and Kenneth Lipper, a former deputy mayor of New York City, have hired a top Manhattan law firm to make a case for banning all helicopters and seaplanes from the East Hampton Airport. They’ve retained Cravath, Swaine & Moore, an international law firm with more than 100 attorneys, to make the case that East Hampton can ban helicopters and seaplanes; require all aircraft to meet an established noise level standard; and restrict takeoffs and landings to four hours a day.

In a six-page opinion, citing legal precedents, attorney David Greenwald of CS&M concluded that the restrictions “reflects a reasonable and non-arbitrary approach to the reduction of noise pollution and does not improperly discriminate against aircraft or aircraft operators …”

The legal action by the FEHAC comes just ahead of an East Hampton Town board meeting this coming Tuesday, where the board is expected to lay down new rules on access, curfews and types of aircraft allowed to take off and land at the airport.

Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who won a seat on the East Hampton board in November 2013 running on a platform of curbing excessive noise, and who is the board’s liaison to the airport, said she had no comment on today’s developments when reached earlier this afternoon.

Shelter Island Supervisor Jim Dougherty, who has been a strong advocate of curbing low flying aircraft in the Island’s airspace and has supported East Hampton’s board in trying to gain control of the town’s airport, wasn’t surprised at today’s legal gambit.

“The pilots’ coalition has been telegraphing these punches for some time now,” Mr. Dougherty said Thursday afternoon. “I personally plan to attend the East Hampton Town Board’s work session next Tuesday morning, which will be given over to the airport problems and proposed solutions, and anticipate a fair number of concerned Shelter Islanders will join me. The next five weeks should tell the tale.”

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell also weighed in, responding in an email: “East Hampton has started down the path of trying to bring fair resolution to longstanding problems with the airport and its operation”  said in an email Thursday.   “I believe that this board recognizes the deleterious impacts the facility has on its residents and on its neighboring towns. There are some that only think about their own interests. It would be foolish of them to under-estimate the resolve of hundreds of people who are determined to limit the impacts these craft have on their lives.”

The volume of traffic to and from New York City to East Hampton increased dramatically last summer because of an improving economy and also through phone apps and ride sharing, providing cheaper flights to the Hamptons for the weekend and trips back to the city.

According to airport records, from January to September 2014 there were 22,350 take offs and landings at the East Hampton Airport, and over the same time frame there were 22,700 complaints logged about excess noise.